Frank Borzage | Biography
| Lucky Star | A Farewell to Arms
| Man's Castle | No Greater Glory
| Green Light
| Big City | Mannequin
| Three Comrades
| Flight Command | Stage Door Canteen
| Screen Directors Playhouse: Day Is Done
Classic Film and Television Home Page
Frank Borzage directed many Hollywood films.
Some common subjects in the films of Frank Borzage:
- Romantic couples
- Labor Union disputes (Stranded, Mannequin)
- Racketeers attacking businesses (Stranded, Big City)
- Women unjustly hunted by the police (Street Angel, Big City)
related (Nazis hunt heroine: The Mortal Storm)
- The Depression (Man's Castle, Little Man, What Now?, Big City, Mannequin)
related (poor farm family: Lucky Star, poor people in valley: Green Light)
- Germany (Little Man, What Now?, Three Comrades, The Mortal Storm)
- Unofficial marriage ceremonies (A Farewell to Arms, Man's Castle, apple wine in bridal cup: The Mortal Storm)
- Lazy men (hero: Lazybones, villain: Lucky Star, hero: Man's Castle, brother, father, husband: Mannequin,
demoralized soldiers who don't want to fight: Day Is Done)
- Women whipped by evil women relatives (Lazybones, 7th Heaven, heroine beaten by mother: Lucky Star)
- Lying characters (sister, sister's mother: Lazybones,
villain's offers of marriage, pretends to be soldier: Lucky Star,
Adolphe Menjou: A Farewell to Arms,
hero pretends to be somebody else: Green Light,
husband: History Is Made at Night,
father, mother, husband: Mannequin)
- Public political speeches (restaurant: Man's Castle, politician on street: Three Comrades)
- Famous people playing themselves (athletes: Big City, New York Theater people: Stage Door Canteen)
Science, technology and engineering:
- Men in military uniform (Lazybones, 7th Heaven, Lucky Star, A Farewell to Arms,
No Greater Glory, Flirtation Walk,
Shipmates Forever, Hearts Divided, Three Comrades, The Mortal Storm, Flight Command,
Stage Door Canteen, Till We Meet Again, Day Is Done, China Doll)
- Metaphorical "wars" (kids gang up on illegitimate child: Lazybones,
teen gang war: No Greater Glory, taxi cab war: Big City, repair firms, political street fights: Three Comrades)
- Public living controls romance and marriage (Lazybones, A Farewell to Arms,
Napoleon attacks brother's marriage: Hearts Divided,
Flight Command, Seven Sweethearts)
- First Ladies of institutions (heroine writes to two soldiers: Lucky Star,
heroine and taxi drivers: Big City,
heroine and husband, Tracy: Mannequin, heroine and three heroes: Three Comrades,
heroine and two brothers: The Shining Hour,
commander's wife: Flight Command, Dolly Madison in White House: Magnificent Doll)
- Infiltrators of institutions (racketeers in labor union: Stranded, brother infiltrates crooked cab company: Big City,
heroine and farm: The Shining Hour,
Nazis in university: The Mortal Storm, hero in flying squad: Flight Command)
- Young men heroes who fail to fit in with military groups (No Greater Glory, Shipmates Forever, Flight Command)
- Scientist and engineer heroes (architecture student: A Farewell to Arms, man building giant bridge: Stranded,
radio operator Sparks: Shipmates Forever, automotive engineer: Desire,
doctor researches Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever: Green Light, medical research professor: The Mortal Storm,
radar inventor: Flight Command) related (repair man: Lucky Star)
- Tech workers in high places (phone line repairmen: Lucky Star, bridge builders: Stranded)
- Aviation (aerial bombing: A Farewell to Arms, Living on Velvet, Three Comrades,
plane trip, hydroplane: The Shining Hour, Flight Command, Till We Meet Again, China Doll)
- Shipping magnates (villain: History Is Made at Night, self-made businessman hero: Mannequin)
- Taxi cabs and garages (Lazybones, Big City, Three Comrades)
- Trains (Lazybones, railroad station: Lucky Star,
A Farewell to Arms, Man's Castle, Stranded, Three Comrades,
out of Germany: The Mortal Storm, Stage Door Canteen)
- Communication technology (telephone pole and lines, record player: Lucky Star,
burglar alarm: Man's Castle, minister broadcasts by radio: Green Light,
radio, radio phones, switchboard: History Is Made at Night,
phone in elevator: Mannequin)
- Technological devices (bucket line, lamp fixed, work bench: Lucky Star,
shirt that lights up: Man's Castle,
operating room equipment, centrifuge, microscope: Green Light,
button for explosion: Big City, warning lights on ship: History Is Made at Night,
punching time cards, flashing light in elevator: Mannequin,
X-Rays, flare sets fire to plane: Three Comrades)
- Technological change (radar inventor: Flight Command, recordings and microphones replacing live music: Day Is Done)
- Navigation in fog (ship: History Is Made at Night, planes: Flight Command)
related (last lines about path in dark: The Mortal Storm)
- Night light displays at parks (Bad Girl, Luna Park: Mannequin)
- Movable figurines (puppet theater: A Farewell to Arms, toys: Man's Castle,
dialogue of Napoleon playing with toy soldiers as child: Hearts Divided,
sock puppet: History Is Made at Night, street peddler toy at start: Mannequin)
- Men who buy household appliances for their wives (stove: Man's Castle, radio: Big City)
related (hero gives heroine record player: Lucky Star)
- Construction sites (apartment building: No Greater Glory, bridge: Stranded, abandoned dam: Green Light)
- Explosions (hero attacked in war: Lucky Star, aerial attacks on civilians: A Farewell to Arms,
ship's boiler: Shipmates Forever, taxi cab garage: Big City) related
(iceberg: History Is Made at Night, plane set on fire: Three Comrades)
- Illness (Lazybones, hero injured in war: Lucky Star,
A Farewell to Arms, No Greater Glory, Green Light, Three Comrades)
- Financial struggles for treatment (buying medicine: Street Angel, paying for operation: Three Comrades)
related (doctor treats poor for free: Green Light)
- Gay characters in love with the hero (priest (Jack La Rue): A Farewell to Arms,
Feri Ats (Frankie Darro): No Greater Glory,
Sgt. Thornhill (Pat O'Brien): Flirtation Walk, chef: History Is Made at Night, Jerry, "Dusty" Rhoades: Flight Command,
private (Bobby Drsicoll): Day Is Done)
related (best friend helps hero: Green Light)
- Sympathetic treatment of black people (porter: Stranded, athletes: Big City)
- Problems of immigrants (Chinese: Stranded, East European: Big City)
- Non-realistic re-creation of ethnic enclaves in the USA (Hawaiian life: Flirtation Walk,
Dutch-American culture in Western Michigan: Seven Sweethearts)
related (stylized Italian city: Street Angel)
- Sympathetic disabled characters (hero: Lucky Star, minister: Green Light)
- Feminist support for women's jobs (A Farewell to Arms, Stranded, nurse: Green Light)
- Illegitimate children and unwed mothers (Lazybones, A Farewell to Arms, Man's Castle)
Settings and props:
- Heroes who fight their way through crowds, in the finale (Chico: 7th Heaven, heroine: Stranded,
hero on ship gets heroine: History Is Made at Night,
hero in restaurant: Big City, Driscoll moves wrong way to find Sergeant: Day Is Done)
- Finales with struggles to move through snow (hero in snow: Lucky Star, skiing: The Mortal Storm)
- Geometric environments (dam: Lazybones, fountain, ceiling, room, arcade: A Farewell to Arms,
restaurant: Man's Castle, lumber yard: No Greater Glory, summer house: Hearts Divided,
circular equipment in operating room: Green Light, restaurant: History Is Made at Night, penthouse: Mannequin)
- Buildings with clear walls (river pavilion at end: Lazybones, hospital foyer at start: A Farewell to Arms,
store window, watchman's office at plant: Man's Castle, greenhouse: No Greater Glory,
garage: Big City, penthouse: Mannequin)
- Outdoor staircases and steps (dam: Lazybones, heroine's rooms: 7th Heaven,
opening city: Street Angel, heroine's farm: Lucky Star,
behind restaurant, ship deck: History Is Made at Night,
heroine's tenement: Mannequin, hero's porch: Three Comrades)
- Moveable parts of homes (gate: Lazybones, manhole cover: 7th Heaven,
double door, bucket mechanism: Lucky Star,
overhead panel: Man's Castle)
- Traffic metaphors (safety zone: Man's Castle, green light: Green Light)
- Circular food and containers (milk pail, berry pail: Lucky Star,
cheese and container: A Farewell to Arms, ice cream desert: Man's Castle,
eggs in skillet, plate: History Is Made at Night,
eggs in skillet: Green Light, dishes of family dinner: Mannequin, platters of chops, bowl on bar: Three Comrades)
- Elaborate restaurant banquets (athletes: Big City, wedding banquet: Three Comrades)
- Cooks (Army cook, hero assists: Lucky Star, restaurant chef, ship chef: History Is Made at Night)
- Water scenes (river: Lazybones, The River,
stream and waterfall by hero's home: Lucky Star,
river: A Farewell to Arms, river side: Man's Castle,
No Greater Glory, Shipmates Forever, abandoned dam: Green Light,
ship side: History Is Made at Night,
beach at Luna Park: Mannequin, beach on honeymoon: Three Comrades,
lake: The Shining Hour)
- Swimming heroes (Lazybones, A Farewell to Arms, Man's Castle)
related (hero and heroine in swimsuits on beach: Three Comrades)
- Bridges (near hero's home: Lucky Star, Golden Gate bridge constructed: Stranded)
- Dams (small river dam: Lazybones, under construction: Green Light)
- Influence of Murnau's film Sunrise (heroine's farm house, lanterns: Lucky Star,
botanical garden at night: No Greater Glory,
crossing street to travel agency: History Is Made at Night)
- Slow, emotional music numbers (tenor John McCormack sings "Little Boy Blue": Song O' My Heart,
tango "Adios Muchachos": History Is Made at Night,
"Ave Maria" played before wedding: Three Comrades,
Gracie Fields sings "The Lord's Prayer": Stage Door Canteen,
bugle music: Day Is Done)
- Unusual hats for the hero (conical farmer's hat: Lazybones, hero's cap: 7th Heaven,
civilian hat, helmet: Lucky Star,
officer's cap: A Farewell to Arms, cap hero wants: No Greater Glory,
chef's hat: History Is Made at Night,
leather taxi cap, pilot's caps: Three Comrades)
- Incongruously dressed men (minister with night watchman's gun: Man's Castle,
Jewish waiter in mandarin's robes: Mannequin)
- Comedy of hero getting dressed up in ill fitting clothes (store clothes: Lazybones, tail coat: Three Comrades)
- People raised up (strongman supports heroine: Street Angel, stilts: Man's Castle)
I have read in old interviews that Borzage, like Lubitsch, acted out all the roles
for the performers - then told the actors to do it that way.
This method of direction is now terribly unfashionable.
But given the results, Borzage (and Lubitsch) got, maybe it should be revived.
Little known fact: Borzage and Raoul Walsh were friends when they worked at Fox
in the early 30's. Source: interview with Raoul Walsh, 1972.
AMC used to show reruns of the old This Is Your Life TV program from
the 1950's. One starred actor Jean Hersholt, broadcast April 28, 1954. The show listed all of Hersholt's
charitable and service activities: they were astonishing! No wonder there is a
Jean Hersholt Humanitarian award each year at the Oscars. Towards the end of the
show, the host said, here is your old friend Frank Borzage! Out came the middle-aged Borzage,
who said a few pleasant words to Hersholt. It is just a glimpse, but there is surviving footage of Borzage.
The TV series Screen Directors Playhouse featured both Borzage and Allan Dwan, among many other directors.
The episode High Air (1956), directed by Dwan, closes with a Coming Attraction of next week's show.
This footage shows Borzage directing. The footage is silent. It depicts Borzage acting out the performance of
a woman he is directing. He shows her how to go down on her knees, and then act. Undoubtedly the actors and Borzage
have picked out a scene that can come across in silent footage. This is a valuable look at Borzage directing.
Lazybones (1925) is a look at sexual repression and small town life. It is based on
Owen Davis' 1924 stage play.
While there is a censor-placating marriage ceremony for Ruth (Zazu Pitts in a great performance),
this is a thinly disguised look at the problems faced by unwed mothers and illegitimate children.
It recalls Way Down East (D. W. Griffith, 1920). The negative look at small town life,
and the wasted lives full of pain of rejected people who live there, also recall
True Heart Susie (D. W. Griffith, 1919).
Living in Institutions
The small town is an institution, that controls all aspects of its inhabitants' marriages,
sexual lives and child rearing. It and its sexual mores are nightmarish, and have little
relationship to the reality of people's feelings.
The hero and his girlfriend are not just a private couple. They also have to deal with
all public views of the hero and the baby he is raising.
The river becomes a powerful metaphor for the characters' lives, near the start of the film.
They are swept up in it, just as they are swept up in life. The lazy hero shows his only dynamism
in these scenes.
At the end, the hero gets back in touch with reality, painful as it is, when he wades into the river.
The dam is a geometric environment, like the lumber yard in No Greater Glory. Both
are rectilinear. Both have regularly repeating elements: the sluices in the dam, the boards in the
The pavilion on the river at the end, is another Borzage building with clear walls.
Cars and the Garage: High Technology
Borzage's heroes love technology. The hero's main passion is tinkering with his car.
Unfortunately, he never does anything serious with this interest, unlike later Borzage heroes
who become engineers or scientists.
The hero's car links him to high technology and progress in the opening scenes. By contrast,
his well-dressed, well-to-do rival drives a lavish horse-and-buggy. This suggests that respectability
and social prominence are linked to backward, anti-progress forces.
Kit and her boyfriend eventually open a garage, while the hero is away at war. Such garages,
run by the heroes of later Borzage films, are a principal locale of Borzage's cinema:
Big City, Three Comrades. They too are signs of technological modernity.
Politics and Capitalism
Sexual repression in Lazybones is not just a moral issue. It is designed to preserve
the "respectability" of the man who becomes the town banker. A proper image for this man, is
considered more important than the feelings of Ruth or her daughter. This links sexual repression
To be fair, the banker is not the enforcer of this code: Ruth's mother is. The banker is unlikable,
but he is never a villain. As far as I can tell, the banker never learns about the child.
However, there are also suggestions he does not try hard to find out.
During the World War I sequence, a German soldier hails the American hero as "Kamerad". One suspects
a reference to left-wing politics. Once again, the hero fails to follow up on
any left-wing political ideas. He wastes his contact with the outside world.
The hero is one of many Borzage men who wind up in uniform.
There are two notable Point-Of-View camera movements, showing standing people at the hero's farm
from a moving vehicle. First we see the mother, standing in the background of the farm, from people
moving past. Then devastatingly, there is a second later shot, showing the unwed mother moving
past the farm and her baby.
The hero's suspenders, anticipate the Sam Browne belt Gary Cooper wears across his chest in
A Farewell to Arms.
The comedy of the hero getting dressed up in his store clothes for the big party, gets repeated
with variations in Three Comrades. In both films, the hero struggles with ill fitting clothes.
Influence on Later Films
The heroine's monster mother is first seen riding a bicycle through the country lanes.
One suspects that this is where King Vidor got the imagery of the Wicked Witch riding
her bicycle at the start of The Wizard of Oz.
Lucky Star (1929) is about a veteran who is disabled in World War I. It offers a highly sympathetic portrait
of the disabled.
Lucky Star was made in both silent and part-sound versions. Today, only the silent version apparently survives.
This review is of the silent version.
Borzage heroes are often scientists or engineers. The working class hero of Lucky Star is not an engineer,
but he is involved with technology. In the first part of the film, he is a skilled telephone line repairman.
He anticipates later films about such workers:
Later, he becomes a repairman of mechanical objects. These include a phonograph player
he gives to the heroine, anticipating later Borage heroes who give appliances to their wives,
such as the radio in Big City.
The hero of Lucky Star gives the world sound communication: earlier, he clears up
phone lines so that messages can get through. And he repairs the record player.
This role seems symbolic: the hero is spreading information and music in his society.
The hero, who does high tech work on high above the ground (on phone lines), anticipates the construction workers on the bridge in
Borzage's Stranded, who also work at great heights on technical projects.
The bridge helps to connect society, just like the hero's work enabling phone lines to send messages.
The hero repairs a lamp, and causes it to shine out several times. He is linked to light.
The hero has a work bench where he does repair.
The hero's town has a train station. Borzage loved trains.
One of the sinister explosions in Borzage attacks the hero's wagon in World War I, and damages his legs.
The villain has some sinister characteristics that recur in other Borzage films:
- He is lazy. He bosses about his men on the phone crew, but refuses to work himself.
And as a Sergeant, he refuses to help get food to his men, disobeying an order.
- He is a liar. He makes false promises to women of marriage to get them to sleep with him.
He wears a uniform to which he is not entitled, after being thrown out of the Army.
(The contemporary concern over "stolen valor" was already a problem in the 1920's, we see.)
The hero's house has moveable parts: the swinging double door; the rope and bucket device he rigs up to get water.
The device is controlled remotely by rope, like the overhead panel in Man's Castle.
The device is also one of the technological gizmos in Borzage's films.
The hero's house is near water: always a constant interest in Borzage. There is a small bridge over the water:
perhaps symbolizing the way the hero's work "connects society together".
The heroine's farm house has the outdoor staircases Borzage likes.
Influence of Sunrise
The heroine's farm house recalls the rural buildings in Sunrise (F. W. Murnau, 1927).
Both have similar architecture, with peaked roofs.
Like Lucky Star, Sunrise was shot on giant studio sets. Both were made at the same studio, Fox.
The lanterns in the early morning opening of Lucky Star, recall the night scene at the end of Sunrise.
Sunrise had a strong influence on films of its era. See Tag Gallagher's book John Ford: The Man and His Movies (1986)
for a discussion of the influence of Murnau and Sunrise on John Ford and Frank Borzage (pp 49-54).
Even in 1929, people realized that line repairmen's gear was cool. The hero's outfit is spectacular.
Borzage films often have their heroes in funny hats.
The hero's hats are nowhere as odd as in some Borzage films, but still are striking:
- When going off to war in his civilian clothes, the hero wears a very large hat.
It has an oddly comical look: socially correct, but still a bit large and a bit comic.
- He wears a round, geometrically emphatic helmet, while in the war.
A Farewell to Arms
A Farewell to Arms (1932) is a romantic drama, set against the disaster of World War I.
The nursing unit is one of several institutions in Borzage, that control people's romantic lives and
marriages. People do not have private lives: their lives are negotiated through the institution.
Aviation plays a role in many Borzage films. Here we see airplanes bombing civilians: a sinister sight.
Links to Lazybones
A Farewell to Arms has many links to Borzage's earlier Lazybones. Both center on
women who have secret pregnancies. Both look at the world of unwed motherhood, although plot gimmicks
preserve marriage vows for the sake of the censor.
There are also connections between their heroes:
- Both have World War I backgrounds, and a hero in uniform.
- Both films have suspense scenes of the hero swimming powerfully in a river.
- Both films introduce their hero sound asleep, but not in a bed.
- Both heroes wear elaborate, unusual hats: Cooper's spectacular officer's cap in A Farewell to Arms,
the huge conical farmer's hat in Lazybones.
Links to Stranded
The hero was an architecture student before the war. This anticipates the bridge building hero of Stranded.
As in c, we have a pair of professionals in love: in A Farewell to Arms an ambulance driver
and a nurse. In both films, both characters' work is treated with respect.
The sympathetically presented priest (Jack La Rue) is shown having intense feelings of friendship
for the hero. At the end of their first scene, the priest stares directly after hero Cooper as he leaves. One suspects
that the priest might be one of many gay friends in love with the hero in Borzage.
Camera movement is rich and ornate, throughout A Farewell to Arms. There is a famous
Point-Of-View shot, showing the hospital ceiling as the hero is wheeled in on his back.
The sidewalk-arcade long take starts out at the restaurant, then makes a right turn as the hero and heroine
leave. Then it follows them in front, as they walk down the arcade.
The giant hospital foyer near the start has glass doors with curving tops, in the background. They are
hung overhead with curtains with scalloped circular edges. This scene is the subject of a striking camera
movement, following the hero in.
The nurses are rolling cylindrical bandages, when they are listening in the opening scene. There is also
a sort of transom, with an arched top.
The hero and heroine have their first love scene, near a circular fountain. It anticipates the shallow pools
in the greenhouse in No Greater Glory.
At least twice, spiral metal work is seen on buildings in the street.
The container with the hero's cheese is circular, inside a square.
The ceiling seen in the Point-Of-View camera movement, is richly curved. So are the walls of the room,
in the subsequent POV shots.
When the hero and heroine walk on the street, they pass through an arcade. It has a series of circular arches
they pass under. The restaurant where they sit at the start, has a protruding circular sign, that juts out
into the arcade. The arcade is a geometric environment.
Man's Castle (1933) is a Depression era romance.
The opening of Man's Castle recalls Lazybones. While the hero is not actually asleep,
he is shown in a condition of idleness, feeding pigeons in the park. He soon meets a heroine as
desperate as the Zazu Pitts character in Lazybones. The hero helps the heroine instinctively,
just like the hero of Lazybones.
We switch to a restaurant scene, anticipating Three Comrades. There is a circular ice cream desert,
piled high, like the circular platters of chops in the wedding banquet in Three Comrades.
The hero makes a public speech about politics in the restaurant. This anticipates the political speaker
on the streets of Germany in Three Comrades.
The baseball team coach is a kid who acts like a grown-up. This anticipates the more elaborate metaphor about kids
and war in No Greater Glory. This is a very funny scene, a high light of the rich humor that runs
through Man's Castle.
The minister performs an unofficial wedding, recalling the similar wedding in A Farewell to Arms.
In both films, this is a religious service, that ties the characters together in the sight of God, but which
has no legal status. In both films, the characters are already sleeping together, before the ceremony.
The toy figurines at the toy factory recall the puppet theater in A Farewell to Arms. The toys make music,
just like the puppets seem to sing opera. There are also the strange toy figures sold by the street peddler,
seen briefly at start of Mannequin.
The factory is fully wired with burglar alarms, that communicate with the police. Borzage films often recognize
the existence of high technology of their time.
When the couple leave the restaurant near the start, we see it is one of Borzage's geometrical environments.
It has arches and curving alcoves, recalling some of the hospital scenes in A Farewell to Arms.
The overhead panel that opens up to the sky, is one of Borzage's movable architecture components.
It recalls the gate in Lazybones and the manhole cover in 7th Heaven. These are often used
to make kinetic displays. They also play on-going roles in the story and characterization.
The night watchman's office is one of many rooms in Borzage with glass walls. It recalls the inner office
at the garage in Big City.
The store window with the stove is also a glass-walled area. We see both from outside and inside this window.
No Greater Glory
No Greater Glory (1934) is an anti-war allegory, about boys playing soldier. It has
some good points, about the insidious appeal of militarism. Unfortunately, it is really
downbeat and depressing.
Borzage would later follow another illness among poor people in Europe, in Three Comrades.
The construction of the apartment house at the end of No Greater Glory, recalls a bit
the building of the bridge in Stranded. Even before the construction starts, the lumber yard
also recalls such building zones, as locale surrounding the bridge going up in Stranded.
No Greater Glory also recalls another film set in a lumber yard,
Who Pays?: Toil and Tyranny (Harry Harvey, 1915). This starred future director Henry King, giving
a charismatic performance. How likely is it, that there could be any influence of a 1915
film on a 1934 one? I'm not sure. Both films are somber, socially conscious dramas.
Both also include a serious illness.
The lumber yard is notably geometric. We see both individual piles of wood, with regularly jutting boards,
and also multiple piles of wood arranged in grids.
No Greater Glory has nearly an all-male cast, aside from the Mother. Inevitably, this
is going to produce some male bonding. Still, rival gang leader Feri Ats (Frankie Darro)
develops quite an admiration for the hero. Is Feri Ats a gay character? If so, he would anticipate
the chef in History Is Made at Night, also a man in love with the film's hero.
Similarly, Sgt. Thornhill (Pat O'Brien) seems to be in love with the hero (Dick Powell)
in Flirtation Walk.
Does the hero's strong desire to conform and fit in with other guys, have any gay motivations?
It is not clear.
The hero of Shipmates Forever fails to fit in with the other naval students. Unlike the boy in
No Greater Glory, this does not bother him - although it upsets other people in the movie.
Also, the hero of Flight Command fails to fit in with his new naval unit.
Links to Sunrise
The scenes at the botanical garden at night recall a film that influenced Borzage,
Sunrise (F. W. Murnau, 1927). Both films show rowboats moving over water at
night. Both water scenes show people hunting for a person, using lanterns.
The glass-walled greenhouse in the botanical garden, also recalls the glass-walled cafe
and dance halls in Sunrise. Borzage would go on to include the glass-walled garage in Big City.
A Scientist Hero - and Stranded
Green Light (1937) is a medical drama. It resembles Stranded, in that it is about a man
who has big technological or scientific ambitions. The hero of Stranded wants to build a huge bridge;
the hero of Green Light tries to find a cure for Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.
Green Light also has a big construction project. While Stranded was about bridge building,
in Green Light we briefly see a dam that had to be abandoned mid-construction to to the plague of fever.
The dam serves as a powerful metaphor for all the ambitions interrupted by the Depression, or other major human failings.
The delay in construction also illustrates the theme of waiting for the "green light": the signal to go ahead.
Both bridges and dams, being public works, were also programs supported more by liberals than conservatives in the 1930's.
The doctor treats the poor in the mountains for free. This complements the subject in other Borzage films,
of poor people struggling to raise money for medical care.
Like the hero of Lucky Star, the minister in Green Light is a disabled man who walks on crutches.
Both lead lives of value and contribute to society. Both provide moral leadership to others.
Both men are associated in a positive way with communication technology:
- The hero of Lucky Star repairs telephone lines, enabling messages to get through.
He also repairs a phonograph.
- The minister in Green Light broadcasts sermons on the radio. One of his listeners hears him
through a radio shaped like a Gothic church window. This is a dramatic image, one that equates the radio's technology
with a divine function.
Errol Flynn had recently played a doctor in Captain Blood (Michael Curtiz, 1935).
He was also an idealistic social crusader in that movie. Both aspects of this characterization persist in
Green Light. Admittedly, Captain Blood is a historical swashbuckler, not a
modern-day realistic film like Green Light.
We also see some instances of Flynn's bedside manner, both in the hospital at the start,
and among the mountain people. This allows Flynn to play to his remarkable charm.
Slick Magazines: the Credits
The credit sequence is designed to look like a magazine of the era. Specifically, a "slick" magazine,
i.e., one printed on high quality, glazed paper. Such magazines were prestigious, and read in huge quantities by
middle class readers, who could afford them. Their glazed "slick" paper supported lavish, full color illustrations.
We see such illustrations in the credits, accompanying the novel in the magazine.
The credits link Green Light to the kinds of widely read, prestigious novels that were serialized
in slick magazines. It definitely attempts to confer literary prestige on the film.
Big City (1937) is a drama about a taxi-cab war. Like Man's Castle, it is also
a powerful drama about ordinary people trying to survive in the Great Depression.
The taxi-cab war recalls another metaphorical "war": that of the boys in No Greater Glory.
(SPOILERS) Both wars have traitors; both have men who infiltrate the enemy's turf; both have
observation posts (the room where Demarest watches the cab company); both have big fist-fight "battles".
I've seen reviews and plot synopses that describe Demarest and his crooks as "labor racketeers".
This does not gibe at all with the actual plot of the film. Demarest and his thugs are hired by the
manager of a big company, to serve as cab drivers in the firm. Their main mission, however, is
to beat up the drivers and wreck the cabs of small, independent cabbies from other companies.
Demarest is a thug, working for one company, to put its rivals out of business. He is NOT trying
to infiltrate labor unions, or control union activities, or affect the treatment of labor in the
big company or its rivals.
Racketeers like Demarest, were the frequent subject of exposes in MGM's film series Crime Does Not Pay.
The crime plot aspects of Big City, can often seem like an large-scale episode of
Crime Does Not Pay.
The heroine's brother, does try to infiltrate the big company. His motive: expose their corruption.
The brother is one of several Borzage characters, who infiltrate institutions.
Living in Institutions
In some ways, all the taxi-cab drivers and their wives are living together. They share social events,
and church services. They also stick together in solidarity. This is a political action:
But it is also one of Borzage's portraits, of life in a group institution.
The heroine is almost shared by the members of the group. She is like the Commander's
wife in Flight Command: someone who affects the life of everyone in the group.
Street Angel is an earlier Borzage film, about a woman hunted unjustly by the police.
The purchase of the radio for the wife, recalls the husband's present of the stove in Man's Castle.
The remote push-button of the device, is fairly sophisticated technology for its era.
Mannequin (1938) looks at a woman's financial struggles in the Depression.
The heroine is afflicted with a lazy father and brother, who she has to support. Soon she
also has a dysfunctional husband, who she supports too.
The heroine's situation is complicated by the fact that her father, mother and husband are all liars.
She often does not know the truth. By contrast, her brother, however lazy, sarcastic and obnoxiously cocky,
is a truth-teller, and often shrewd in his insights. This gives the brother a certain redeeming quality.
While the heroine apparently tries to be a loyal wife to her new husband, he keeps throwing her
into quasi-romantic situations with rich guy Spencer Tracy. The husband is nearly pimping her,
trying to use the heroine's allure to get an in with Tracy. In consequence, it is almost as if the
wife has married two men, not one. She seems to be a shared wife, between her legal husband and Tracy.
This will echo other Borzage films, where a wife seems to be a First Lady or shared wife of a whole group of men.
One thinks of the wife leading the Three Comrades, the heroine and all the taxi cab drivers in
Big City, the Commander's wife in Flight Command who is a First Lady to all the men
in the military unit. Those are all "respectable" relationships, though: without sex.
The heroine's father and brother are too lazy to work. The mother tries to defend the father, saying he can't find a job.
The heroine will have none of this: she insists the father is lazy.
It is clear that the film agrees: the father is shown as shiftless and worthless.
In 1937, finding work was still very difficult. It wasn't the bottom of the Depression,
but prosperity was still a distant memory. The idea that the unemployed were just too lazy to work
seems very wrong. This comes over as right-wing propaganda.
The heroine punches a time card, when she leaves the factory.
The elevator at Tracy's has an elaborate light display, indicating the floors. This makes for a vivid
on-screen light effect - and also plays a role in the plot. Borzage devices often serve such a dual
kinetic / story development role.
The elevator has a telephone. Like the burglar alarm in Man's Castle, it is a high tech
The heroine pauses in her dingy tenement staircase, to turn a light bulb so that it burns more brightly.
Circles and Architecture
Tracy's penthouse apartment is highly geometrical. It emphasizes circles:
The penthouse wall is another glass walled building in Borzage. A ring of glass windows
stands between the penthouse proper and its patio.
- A big rug on the floor is circular.
- The staircase is curved; has elaborately curved steps; and even has a balustrade made of up intersecting circular arcs.
- The wall of the penthouse is circular.
- The patio outside is also a circular ring, with a curved wall.
Circles and Food
The food platters are all circular, during the early meal with the heroine's family.
This is not unusual, in either the movies or real life, of course.
Still, it is consistent with Borzage's interest in circular containers for food.
Three Comrades (1938) is a film taking place in 1920 Germany, after World War I.
The three heroes of the film are inseparable. Although the heroine marries one of them, she
is really given emotional support by all three. She is another Borzage heroine who is
essentially the first lady of an institution: here the three comrades.
Three Comrades contains a number of Borzage's metaphorical "wars":
- The heroes' repair company gets into a street battle, with representatives of another firm.
This recalls the taxi battles of Big City.
- We also see the political street battles between left and right in pre-Nazi Germany.
Three Comrades is full of technology, like other Borzage films,
with the heroes piloting first a plane, then a taxi.
A train also shows up, as does an X-Ray machine.
It is not fully clear what the technological device is, that the hero uses to burn the plane at the start.
One suspects it is a flare.
Circles and Food
Three Comrades has that Borzage motif, circular containers for food:
- During the toasts at the bar, early in the film, a large bowl is on the bar at the left.
It seems to contain food or drinks.
- After the marriage, huge circular platters of pork chops and other food are brought out.
At the end, Borzage uses an overhead angle, to show the heroine getting out of bed, and moving across
When the hero rushes across the sanitarium lobby, Borzage's camera follows him, and as he moves upstairs.
The heroes share one of Borzage's odd hats: a leather taxi driver's cap.
Earlier, the three men are in pilot's dress uniforms in the bar. Their uniform caps are unusually
large and elaborate, with a tall cylindrical section making them higher, before their peaked top.
They have not the typical black visor of many uniforms, but a color that might be brown or gray
(it is hard to tell in the black-and-white photography). The shiny visor with its rich color attracts the eye.
When their unsympathetic superior officer shows up, his cap has a traditional black visor,
underscoring the unusual caps of the three heroes.
Much comedy is drawn from the hero's ill-fitting tail coat. This recalls the hero's comic problems
with clothes in Lazybones.
Men in Military Uniform
Flight Command (1940) is about US Naval Flyers. It is one
of many Borzage films about men in military uniform: 7th
Heaven (1927), A Farewell to Arms (1932), Flirtation
Walk (1934), Three Comrades (1938), The Mortal Storm
(1940), Stage Door Canteen (1943), Till We Meet Again
(1944), China Doll (1958). Borzage is clearly not always
enthused about this. The sinister Nazi uniforms donned midway
by the young German men in The Mortal Storm, make clear
Borzage's reservations about the appeal of uniforms.
Living in Institutions
In Flight Command, being a member of the squadron takes over the characters'
entire life. They have no identity outside of being a Hellcat,
the name of their unit. They socialize and work as a group, wear
uniforms constantly, and engage in group think, often sinister,
as when they repeatedly reject the hero from admission to their
Even when men are not in uniform in Borzage, they are often dealing
with large scale institutions: the labor unions and businesses
in Stranded (1935) and Mannequin (1938), the university
in The Mortal Storm. People do not live alone in Borzage:
they deal with complex institutions and large groups of people
to perform their jobs.
And not just men. Especially in his later films, women's lives
and work often puts them at the center of institutions: the USO-run
hall in Stage Door Canteen, the convent in Till We Meet
Again, and Dolly Madison's role as First Lady of the White
House in Magnificent Doll (1946). Here in Flight Command,
Ruth Hussey has to serve as essentially First Lady of the flight
squadron, having a similar quasi-official role as The Skipper's
Wife. All of this work is seen as terribly demanding. It causes
emotional stress, and also requires major organizational skills,
as well as a form of "public living in the world" that
is most unusual. Hussey's marriage is no longer a private affair.
Both Hussey's husband, and his men, demand that the marriage be
shared with the whole unit, and subject to their demands and manipulations.
In more comic ways, the canteen has strict rules governing how
the women can interact with men in Stage Door Canteen.
More sinister again under the surface, but more comic in superficial
tone, is the complex way the sisters have to court as a group
in Seven Sweethearts, and the way their father interferes
in their love life - not a pretty picture. The most intimate details
of women's romantic lives become part of some group institution
Institutions in Borzage have infiltrators: outsiders who come
in, and try to change it. One thinks of the racketeers who work
their way into the labor union in Stranded. And the way
the Nazi Party invades the classroom and family of the professor
in The Mortal Storm. Both of these infiltrators are evil
to the core. By contrast, the hero of Flight Command is
placed in the uncomfortable position of being seen as an infiltrator
of the squad, by all its members. He is imposed on them against
their will by naval higher-ups at the start of the picture. And
the suspicion never really stops - he is never genuinely accepted
as a member of the unit. Despite all of this, he is not trying
to subvert the organization, the way other infiltrators in Borzage
Flight Command has a number of relationships that can be
considered as gay. Jerry, the inventor of the fog device,
is in love with the hero. Borzage has the two of them go into
a tight close-up, with his camera moving in ever closer as Jerry
moves more and more intensely near the hero. Jerry grabs the hero's
lapels, in an intimate gesture. The tight face-to-face encounter
is imagery that is usually reserved for romantic couples in films.
His character recalls a bit the chef in History Is Made at
Night, who is also in love with that film's hero.
The commander of the squad explains that the squad runs on the
devotion of the men to their leader, himself, and the return way
in which the leader is devoted to his men. Borzage does not completely
approve of, or idealize this arrangement. The commander's wife
clearly feels the attention she is getting from her husband is
inadequate. He instead seems mainly concerned that she behave
in a way that boosts the morale of his men. She exists as a support
for the more important relationship in his life.
The commander's second in command, "Dusty" Rhoades,
is totally devoted to his leader. We see Dusty dating at one point,
but not very intimately. It is clear that his main personal interest
in life is his commander. He intervenes in a truly odd way towards
the end of the film, to protect, as he sees it, his commander's
In History Is Made at Night, the chef nearly dies at the
end, trying to be loyal to his friend. Here, Jerry actually does
die, due to his reckless disregard of safety as a test pilot.
In general, while the love of the chef is seen as a wholly positive
thing in History Is Made at Night, in Flight Command
the gay relationships seem more problematical. While Jerry is
a largely admirable person as an inventor that tries to improve
humanity's life, he is also 1) part of a war effort 2) not in
touch with the life force that allows people to survive and flourish
Jerry is trying to invent a device that will allow pilots to land
in fog. It is seen as a form of light that will guide them. This
is part of a series of light imagery in Borzage, such as the film
Green Light. One also recalls the heroine's job in Stranded,
where as a Traveler's Aide Society worker, she guides travelers
who are lost - another symbolic image. John Belton points both
kinds of symbolism out in his book The Hollywood Professionals
Volume 3: Howard Hawks Frank Borzage Edgar G. Ulmer (1974).
In real-life, radar will actually be invented soon, so this film
is talking accurately about the development of flight technology.
The invention work here recalls Stranded (1935). That film's
hero is trying to build a thinly disguised version of the Golden
Gate Bridge. Both films idealize men who work on large-scale,
technology-oriented projects. However, the work on the bridge
is a civilian effort, not a military one. And it is seen as wholly
positive, creative and admirable by Borzage. While the fog-guidance
invention here leads to its inventor's death. There are other
differences, too. The engineer hero of Stranded is the
leader of a large group of men, in a giant business enterprise
of building the bridge. In this, he resembles Spencer Tracy's
tycoon in Mannequin. Both men also share a hands-on, working
man feel. By contrast, Jerry works in near complete isolation
in Flight Command, with one assistant and the hero to help
him. And he has an upper-middle class feel - he is definitely
not a proletarian Man of the People.
The huge ship in History Is Made at Night is also a large
scale technological object. And one which meets disaster, like
many of the planes in Flight Command.
Danger in Flight
The naval squad in Flight Command has a truly terrible
safety record! This is true of other movies about pilots, such
as The Flying Fleet (George Roy Hill, 1929), Only Angels
Have Wings (Howard Hawks, 1939) and
Top Gun (Tony Scott, 1986), to name three films that seem
the closest to Flight Command in approach - the first and
last also being about elite US Naval aviators, who work in cutting-edge
aviation in peace time, just as in Flight Command. Many
of the men in Flight Command have nicknames, perhaps a
precursor to the official flight-names the characters adopt in
Top Gun. I have no idea if flying in real life is risky
as these films make out, or whether it is exaggerated to pump
up drama for the movies. All of these films, including Flight
Command, have homoerotic subtexts.
Borzage had earlier made a film about a flyer whose compulsive
recklessness ruined his life and marriage: Living on Velvet
(1935). Both films depict danger as part of the emotional and
psychological make-up of pilots. Both films have a deeply melancholy
Stage Door Canteen
A Love for the Theater
Stage Door Canteen (1943) is a look at the entertainment center
in New York City, provided for servicemen during World War II by
theater people. It contains several musical and stage numbers, by famous actors.
Obviously Stage Door Canteen is atypical of Borzage's career, at least on
the surface. Or is it? It has little to do with two of Borzage's principal themes,
love and spirituality. But it has much to do with Borzage's reverence for work.
The theater people in the film are all great artists and craftsmen. They are the kind of
people he admired in film after film, people whose work is creative and meaningful. A good
deal of a film might show their actual work. They often make things or build
things or do services useful to others. It is
a side of Borzage that needs to be brought to the surface.
Have never forgotten the young soldier's awe at his meeting with Katherine
Cornell, and their reciting of Romeo and Juliet together. This scene
encapsulates all the love for the theater many people have. It is a force as
great and as sublime as cinephilia. Only Borzage could express such an interior spiritual
force with such clarity and power. (My other favorite film about the love of
theater: The Great Garrick (James Whale, 1937)).
Also loved the music in this film, especially Gracie Fields singing The
Have also seen a clip of an early Borzage talkie, Song O' My Heart
(1930), with the great tenor John McCormack singing "Little Boy Blue". Such slow,
delicately emotional numbers seem like a Borzage tradition. The tango "Adios
Muchachos" in History Is Made at Night is also memorable.
Borzage's characters often have to fight their way through
a crowd of people, literally pulled along by some moral force that is
overwhelming: the blinded Chico making his way back to the heroine in 7th Heaven;
Kay Francis fighting her way through the unhappy workers with a message
for them in Stranded; the husband making his way into the restaurant at the end
of Big City. Or the way all the soldiers shift to the other side of the
train in Stage Door Canteen at the opening, so they can see women out the
windows on one side.
Screen Directors Playhouse: Day Is Done
Day Is Done (1955) is the first of Borzage's three episodes of
the TV series Screen Directors Playhouse. It is a war drama.
Borzage made many war dramas, and tales of men in uniform.
Links to Other Korean War Films
Day Is Done has some broad similarities in subject and characters with
Retreat, Hell! (Joseph H. Lewis, 1952):
However, Day Is Done is very different from Retreat, Hell! in its main story or details.
The concrete battles in the two films seem different as well:
Retreat, Hell! seems to refer to the 1950 battle of Chosin Reservoir,
while Day Is Done is set in June 1951. Day Is Done also depicts far fewer
casualties and a more "normal" environment, than the disasters shown in Retreat, Hell!.
- Both take place in the Korean War, during US retreats.
- Both have a very young private as an important character.
- Both involve the blaring horn music used by the enemy.